Old Boy Network (United Kingdom)

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Old boy network 🇬🇧
United Kingdom map.png
Location: United Kingdom
Definition: Members of a network arising from membership of the alumni of a prestigious school or college
Keywords: UK Europe EU Community Favour Influence Elite Education Public service
Clusters: Solidarity Normative ambivalence Conformity Lock-in effect Community lock-in
Author: Philip Kirby
Affiliation: Sutton Trust, UK
Website: Profile page at ST

By Philip Kirby, Sutton Trust, UK

It’s not what you know, it’s whom you know’ – the oft-quoted phrase that captures the essence of the ‘Old Boy Network’. In the UK, it refers to the informal system of connections and social capital that benefit certain members of society – especially those that have passed through the country’s private school system and Oxbridge (old boy being a synonym of alumni). Such networks expedite, so it’s claimed, the progress of certain individuals to the top – of the professions, of society, of the country as whole. It’s an informal system found in different forms across the world (for a discussion of the US example, see Rivera 2012[1]), but the UK’s is perhaps the most well-known.

Some figures provide context: of the UK’s top judges (High Court and Appeals Court), three quarters (74 per cent) went to private school – the same proportion (74 per cent) that attended Oxbridge; of MPs, the figures are 32 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively; of the senior civil service, 48 per cent and 51 per cent. Similar proportions exist across the professions and have remained remarkably stable across time (Kirby 2016[2]). Schooling and university are not the only markers of social capital, of course, but given that only 7 per cent of the population attend private schools (and far fewer Oxbridge), they are emblematic of how moving in certain circles increases one’s chances of success. Given that the best state schools academically outperform private schools, there’s more going on here than the simple fact of the best-educated rising to the top.

So what is happening? The precise mechanism is that curious mixture of the obvious and the opaque – researchers know it’s there, they can often identify the people who it affects, but the precise mechanics are complex and variable. Corporeality is important, of course – a look, an accent, even a posture; the kind of qualities often imbued by a private, but not state education. But it is also about more direct forms of assistance – a parent who can secure a top internship for their son/ daughter at a firm their old classmate runs; a recruiter who attended the same school (or at least type of school) as you did, and trusts you slightly more because of it.

It’s adaptable, too. Research has shown that, where education level ceases to be an indicator of a particular individual’s social milieu (such as in education-blind recruitment practices), other traits fill the gap (Bathmaker, Ingram and Waller 2013[3]). Did you play football at school, or did you row (a sport traditionally associated with the elite in the UK)? Did you spend the summer waiting tables, or working at that investment bank? Did you have the requisite ‘polish’ and confidence, or were your manners a little more ‘coarse’? It might be possible to disguise someone’s school on an application form, but you cannot disguise a candidate’s background completely.

Why does this happen? Again, the reasons are plural. There is a recognised tendency for people to select, favour and employ others like themselves (Ashley et al. 2015[4]). There is also the legacy factor – those from certain social classes and backgrounds, especially in the UK, have always disproportionately populated certain employment fields, such as the judiciary. People expect to see particular people in particular places and changing such cultural assumptions is not straightforward – and certainly not feasible overnight. Less generously, many of the powerful are keen to retain their power, of course, or bequeath it to friends, family or others like them who they favour.

In this way, it is perhaps easy, when discussing the network in the abstract, to construe it as some kind of singular grand conspiracy. But much of this work is done subconsciously, without necessarily a dedicated effort to reproduce elites of a similar social background over time. In this sense, ‘network’ is something of a misnomer. Undoubtedly, there are concrete examples of people giving others who (literally) wear the same school tie opportunities that they would not have otherwise, but we are all culpable to an extent. The lionisation of particular attitudes and qualities runs throughout society and is often associated with certain educations. Being a ‘statesmanlike’ politician is widely-respected, but the next time you hear the term used, consider the background of the politician in question – almost invariably the ‘statesmanlike’ qualities they possess are synonymous with the ‘polish’ they acquired from a private education. Of the UK’s 76 Prime Ministers to date, the vast majority attended private schools, with 19 attending just one – Eton College (BBC News 2010[5]). You do not have to be in the network to implicitly support values associated with the same.

‘Statesmanlike’ is also a useful term for thinking about perhaps the most obvious characteristic of the ‘Old Boy Network’ – its gendering. In keeping with the UK’s historical patriarchy, the term originally referred to ex-students of all-male schools; students who proceeded to lead the country in business, warfare, politics, and so forth. The gendered dimension remains, albeit the almost complete domination of elite professions by men, characteristic of UK society as recently as the middle of the twentieth century, has slightly eroded. In the High Court and Appeals Court today, one in five (21 per cent) judges are female (Judicial Office 2016[6]). The present (but gradual) procession of gender equality is replicated across other professions, too. If the ‘Old Boy Network’ is no longer literally true, therefore, it still captures the dramatic overrepresentation of men in positions of UK social power.

Given the durability of the network, what is to be done to break its power and make the top of UK society more representative of the rest? Perhaps the gravest threat to its continuation in recent UK politics has been the advent of ‘social mobility’ and associated agendas – the effort to ensure as free movement as possible between social classes, so that one’s life chances are no longer predicted by schooling, family background, or similar (Blanden, Gregg and Machin 2005[7]). ‘Education-blind’ recruitment strategies, as mentioned, are one way that this goal has been approached, including in a recent proposal by the UK civil service (Civil Service 2016[8]). In her first statement as UK Prime Minister, Theresa May promised to fight the injustice that, ‘If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top of professions than if you’re educated privately.’ (Prime Minister’s Office 2016[9]). The influence of internet-based social networking will be interesting to follow here too – will services such as Facebook and LinkedIn help to democratise recruitment and level the playing field? Perhaps – but they might also become new vehicles for the perpetuation of the ‘Old Boy Network’.


  1. Rivera, L. 2012. ‘Hiring as cultural matching: The case of elite professional service firms’, American Sociological Review, 77: 999-1022
  2. Kirby, P. 2016. Leading people 2016: The educational backgrounds of the UK professional elite. London: Sutton Trust
  3. Bathmaker, A-M, Ingram, N., & Waller, R. 2013. ‘Higher education, social class and the mobilisation of capitals: Recognising and playing the game’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34: 723-743
  4. Ashley, L., Duberley, J., Sommerlad, H., & Scholarios, D. 2015. A qualitative evaluation of non-educational barriers to the elite professions. London: Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission
  5. BBC News. 2010. ‘Why has Eton produced so many Prime Ministers?’, news.bbc.co.uk, 12 May, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/8622933.stm
  6. Judicial Office. 2016. ‘Judicial statistics 2016’, judiciary.gov.uk, 28 July, https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/publications/judicial-statistics-2016/
  7. Blanden, J., Gregg, P., & Machin, S. 2005. Intergenerational mobility in Europe and North America. London: Centre for Economic Performance and Sutton Trust
  8. Civil Service. 2016. Workforce plan 2016-2020. London: UK Civil Service
  9. Prime Minister’s Office. 2016. ‘Statement from the new Prime Minister Theresa May’, gov.uk, 13 July, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/statement-from-the-new-prime-minister-theresa-may